Sunday, March 16, 2008

Understanding Resurrection

Below is an article from yesterday's "New York Times" about resurrection. Next Sunday, March 23rd, is, in the Western Church, Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection.


Resurrection Is Often Misunderstood by Christians and Jews


Published in the "New York Times" on March 15, 2008

As Christians in most of the world approach the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, it is startling to find three distinguished scholars, all known for scrupulous attention to theological tradition and biblical sources, agreeing that the very idea of resurrection is widely and badly misunderstood.

Misunderstood not just by those whose contemporary sensibilities restrain them from saying much more about resurrection than that it symbolizes some vague (and probably temporary) victory of life over death. But also misunderstood by many devout believers who consider themselves thoroughly faithful to traditional religious teachings.

Kevin J. Madigan is a Roman Catholic who teaches Christian history at Harvard Divinity School. Jon D. Levenson, a colleague at Harvard, is a Jew who teaches Jewish studies. Together they have written “Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews.”

The book, which will be published next month by Yale University Press, argues that the idea that God will raise the dead to life at the end of time is central to both Jewish and Christian traditions.

N. T. Wright is a noted New Testament scholar who has continued to churn out academic and popular works, even after moving from Oxford in 2003 to become the Anglican bishop of Durham. Last month he published “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” (HarperOne).

These two books are different in tone and agenda. Professors Madigan and Levenson are particularly interested in countering the assumption that resurrection is solely a Christian belief, rather than one deeply rooted in the Judaism from which Jesus emerged. Bishop Wright has written a more popular and pastoral book, with practical proposals for church renewal.

But both books converge in challenging several widespread notions. Resurrection, they maintain, does not simply mean going to heaven or life after death.

Resurrection is not a belief that divides an other-worldly Christianity from a this-worldly Judaism.

Nor is resurrection something that refers only — or even primarily — to the individual’s survival after death.

Instead, both books emphasize that in classic Jewish and Christian teachings, resurrection refers to a collective resurrection of people and renewal of all creation at the end of time.

Resurrection was linked to the expectation of judgment and a final triumph of justice. This was the idea of resurrection that had evolved as Jews returned from exile and struggled under foreign domination in the period before Jesus. It was this idea of resurrection that Christians had in mind when they declared that what occurred on Easter was the “first fruits” of what was to come.

If there is a key to the convergence among these authors, it lies, first of all, in their insistence on the bodily and communal character of resurrection, a view that has long competed with a Hellenistic philosophical and especially Platonic dualism, in which an individual disembodied intellect or spirit could be saved from its corruptible and corrupting body.

Even as great a Jewish sage as Maimonides seemed to be tempted in this direction, and Bishop Wright sees the legacy of this dualism in the storehouse of Christian images, from Dante to classic hymns, in which souls shorn of bodies find their final destiny in a heavenly region quite elsewhere than on earth.

This Hellenistic dualism had earlier reached its apogee in Gnosticism, which almost always taught the incompatibility of spirit and matter and sought salvation in the shucking off of the material body. Professor Madigan, Professor Levenson and Bishop Wright view the anti-Gnostic stances of early church fathers and rabbinic sages alike as a proper defense of their traditions’ core beliefs and not, as recently argued, a tactic in religious power politics.

Unlike Gnosticism, Judaism and Christianity, in different ways, held to the goodness of creation and the flawed nature of humans. This equips both traditions, in these writers’ opinions, to avoid the illusion that humans can build a perfect world on their own while yet instilling in humans the confidence that the good they do will finally be affirmed and completed by the God of Resurrection.

Both these books build on their authors’ previous works. In “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel” (Yale University Press, 2006), Professor Levenson argued that belief in resurrection was much more deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition than many Jews today realized.

Five years ago, Bishop Wright, whose important contributions to the scholarly debate over the historical Jesus have emphasized Jesus’ place within Judaism’s expectations for a divine restoration of Israel, published “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (Fortress).

Although both books emphasize resurrection as the final expression of divine power, vindicating those faithful to God’s promises and regenerating all creation, neither is indifferent to the question of the immediate destinies of the departed.

Professors Madigan and Levenson do not think that their explanation of resurrection entails “a disbelief in the immortality of some aspect of the person or in the notion that the departed righteous even now enjoy a blissful communion with God.” And though Bishop Wright can be rather impatient with much of the talk of “souls” and “immortality” and “heaven” thoroughly embedded in Christian prayer and ritual, he has no problem when heaven as a “postmortem destination” is seen as a “temporary stage on the way to eventual resurrection of the body.”

This eventual resurrection, he writes, is not “life after death” so much as “life after life after death.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why Sex is Important

One response to Gov. Spitzer’s sex scandal is, “It’s just sex. Why is it so important?” Well, it is just sex, and it’s important, because sex is important in our culture way beyond its role as one of our basic, and perhaps strongest, appetites. Often, sex is also a surrogate for our deepest, unconscious, unexamined emotions. This is, of course, Freud 101, but what is usually not recognized is the church’s complicity in keeping sex and the related emotions unexamined. For 2000 years, the church has been urging the renunciation of sex in favor of “purity.” For example, in Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists “the works of the flesh,” which he links to death. The first three are fornication, impurity, and licentiousness. Thus, unsanctioned sexual activity takes pride of place in his list of vices which continues with apparently nonsexual activities, such as idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, and anger among others. Paul here seems to imply that the sexual sins lead right to all the other vices. Although all these are bad, the sexual ones may be at the root of the others, leading ultimately to separation from the Spirit.
Whether this interpretation of Paul is correct, the church has certainly acted as if it were. Peter Brown in his book, “The Body and Society” has documented that the church, from Paul right into the Middle Ages, opted to make sex and contact with sex one of the main benchmarks of the hierarchy of the Christian life. Celibacy for men and virginity for women took on great importance. Even today, as the Spitzer scandal demonstrates, there is zero tolerance in our culture for sex outside of the culturally permitted norms.
Now, this is not to say that sex should be or can be without consequences. The power of the sex drive militates against this idea, because sex without mature and conscious internal control can lead to some or all the nonsexual sins Paul deplores. However, instead of urging mature self-control in sex, the church; and, by extension, “Christian Civilization, has demanded that we “just say no” to sex.
But renunciation does not eliminate the appetite for sex or sexual activity. Instead, it makes guilty hypocrites of essentially everyone who tries, and generally fails, not to feel sexual, think about sex, or have sex. Of course, hypocrisy frequently leads to denial, deception, and lying, as in Gov. Spitzer’s case. Apparently, illicit sex was for him the response to a sex drive, which he couldn’t resist but which he thought he could handle. It seems as if renunciation did not work for him. How much better for him – and for us – if our culture could have allowed him to deal effectively with the issues represented by his unsanctioned sexual feelings.